Denial of Record Requests Under FOIA Upheld When Requests “Unduly Burdensome”

When responding to a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), a school district met its burden when it explained in detail why the request was denied as unduly burdensome.

On June 2, 2016, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law (“Shriver”), a nonprofit legal and policy advocacy organization for low-income individuals and families, submitted a FOIA request to the Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) requesting complaints made to CPS involving police officers or security guards stationed at CPS schools from 2012 to 2016. CPS immediately invoked its right to an extension and on June 10, 2016, denied the request because there is no database that keeps the information Shriver sought and collecting the information would be unduly burdensome pursuant to FOIA Section 3(g), given the timeframe and potential locations for the complaints. CPS invited Shriver to narrow and clarify the request.

Shriver sent a second request on June 8, 2016, before it received a response for its first FOIA request, asking for alleged employee misconduct reports that involved in-school police officers entered into a specific database in 2014. Again, CPS almost immediately issued an extension letter. On June 16, 2016, CPS denied the request as unduly burdensome. CPS explained in its letter that its database does not have a field to identify in-school police officers, and so CPS staff would have to individually review more than 600 incident narratives for 2014. Once again, CPS invited Shriver to narrow its request.

Shriver submitted a third FOIA request on June 16, 2016, which was also denied. This third request was for all alleged employee misconduct reports entered into the database in 2014. CPS denied the request as unduly burdensome because the request yielded 635 results, which would require hundreds of man hours to review and redact. CPS concluded that the burden would outweigh the public interest in the records.

Shriver then filed a lawsuit with the Circuit Court of Cook County alleging that CPS willfully violated FOIA each time it denied Shriver’s requests and that CPS’s automatic extension was improper. CPS moved to dismiss the case because Shriver failed to allege any facts supporting its allegations. Specifically, CPS noted that Shriver did not allege facts to establish that CPS willfully or intentionally failed to comply with FOIA or otherwise acted in bad faith. The Circuit Court agreed with CPS and found that the extensions were proper and that Shriver failed to identify how CPS’s refusal to produce records was willful and intentional or otherwise in bad faith. Shriver appealed the Circuit Court’s holding to the Appellate Court.

The Appellate Court agreed with the Circuit Court. With respect to the time extensions, the Appellate Court emphasized that a public body has the unilateral ability to extend its response by five business days, which is exactly what CPS did. With respect to CPS’s denial of the FOIA requests as undue burdens, the Appellate Court found that CPS properly explained the reasons for the denials in its response letters, and the reasons provided showed that the burden of compliance would outweigh the public interest in disclosing the requested records.

This ruling confirms that when a public body denies a request because it is unduly burdensome, it should specifically state in the denial why the request is unduly burdensome and provide the requester an opportunity to narrow his/her request.

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